Earlier this month experts at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s annual conservation symposium discussed a wide range of threats to birds, bats, butterflies, amphibians and even mussels. The conservationists claim problems with these various species are at least in part caused by massive water withdrawals from the area due to fracking.
Fracking is a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep into the ground to shatter shale and free trapped oil and gas which drillers can eventually sell. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is reportedly allowing increased natural gas and oil activities in the state which are exempt from certain environmental requirements, the conservationists say.
The Curator of Botany for the National History Museum, Jim Bissell, claims disruption of the area by drilling, installing pipelines, and related activities clashes with the reason the forest lands were initially acquired by the museum and other groups. “Everything is based on plant communities,” he explained. “Meadows and forests attract different kinds of birds, insects and other animals. Where rare plants are found, there are frequently rare animals.”
Various species of wildlife need large contiguous areas to thrive and reproduce and even if groundwater is not polluted, alteration of its level is of concern, Bissell said. “Even if the total area is small, the consequences of disturbance can be huge,” he observed.
He gave the example of nearly 200 rare orchids which flourished at a site prior to conventional gas drilling in the area. By the following year almost all of them had disappeared. Bissell believes the low water level caused the dramatic change. The orchids will be back, but it may take at least 20 years, he estimates.
The Eastern Hellbender, an endangered Ohio salamander is the biggest amphibian in the state and originates from a species that is 1.8 million years old. It is also seriously threatened by fracking activity in eastern Ohio.
State law permits large companies to withdraw large amounts of water for fracking. If they are taking more than 100,000 gallons a day, the company must register within 90 days of the activity. “It’s not a permit, you just have to let the state know,” said Ohio herpetologist Gregory Lipps, who leads the study of what is happening with the Eastern Hellbender and its habitat.
In Ohio, most activities for drilling and production are also exempt from storm water permit requirements. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact protects the Lake Erie watershed because large scale water diversions are not permitted, but the protection does not extend to other areas in the state, according to Bissell.
From 2012 to 2013, horizontal shale wells in Ohio increased more than fourfold from 85 to 359. The ODNR has announced it expects continued growth in Ohio’s oil and gas industry.
ODNR regulations require that an inspector perform a site review before any new horizontal well pad is built in the state. Topography, streams, wetlands and habitats and nearby residences are taken into consideration, according to Mark Bruce of ODNR. To his knowledge a permit has never been denied for shale oil and gas activities based on endangered species or threatened habitats.
But well pads and other activities with a smaller surface footprint do not even have to go through such review. The conservationists point out that an ODNR inspector may not be aware of all of the rare plants and animals within the area surveyed due to sparse data. In many cases the plants and animals have not been adequately inventoried due to low levels of natural resources personnel.
Currently the state of Ohio is dealing with 16 million gallons of wastewater a year from the well drilling. No aquifer contamination has been reported, but the activity is not without controversy. A Youngstown area businessman was sentenced in August in a wastewater dumping case along with two of his employees, and a Columbus area man has been sued by a Texas driller for posting anti-fracking billboards in Coshocton, Ohio. At least two minor earthquakes, one in March, one in late summer, have been investigated for a possible link to drilling of deep injection wells in Northeast Ohio.
In the wastewater dumping case, 64-year-old Ben Lupo was sentenced to 28 months in prison and fined $25,000 for illegally dumping the water and telling his employees to lie about it. Lupo pled guilty to the federal Clean Water Act violations. His employees received three years’ probation for their actions.